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CAEL Pathways Blog

Competency Transparency in our Postsecondary Systems

Revamping postsecondary data systems to support equitable and competency-based learning and hiring 

In the last decade, postsecondary education has seen new approaches to learning and credentialing that focus on revealing the competencies that are learned and that are important for jobs and careers (see, in particular, the work of institutions that are part of the Competency Based Education Network). These new approaches are also leading to bigger-picture thinking about the need for greater transparency about what students know and can do as they traverse the on-and off-ramps between education and work postsecondary learning can no longer be about butts in seats but rather about competencies developed. Much, in fact, has been written about the envisioning of a different kind of educational and labor market ecosystem for individual workers, recent graduates, and employers, in which competencies are front and center. Yet, when it comes to the mechanics of how postsecondary institutions need to operate differently to support a competency-based environment, institutions may not have a sense of how to jump in. 

We can imagine many benefits to the individual learner or job seeker, and to the employer, that could derive from new tools and strategies that are part of this new system: competency-based career pathways; competency-based curricula underlying degrees and other credentials; and competency-based learner records that capture achievements that individuals acquire throughout their lifetime, from both formal learning environments and work or life experiences. With these tools, employers could better articulate the competencies needed for particular jobs and could identify the best candidates for those jobs in a way that expands their talent pipeline. At the same time, individual job seekers could better speak to their own competencies and identify pathways for career advancement and satisfaction. A competency-based system of learning and hiring could also support greater equity in access to competencies, learning options, and careers. Getting there, however, will depend on postsecondary institutions doing their part: developing the capacity to provide detailed data on the competencies that are aligned with their credentials and graduates.  

Enterprising organizations and education technology vendors are working on different aspects of a competency-based education and labor market ecosystem, but three components relating to competency transparency consistently stand out:

  • Occupational and career pathway transparency through the mapping of career pathways in a way that illuminates what competencies and credentials are needed for specific occupations, and how a worker can progress from one occupation to another by adding new competencies and work experiences. 
  • Credential transparency in order to provide essential information about credential offerings, such as the competencies they develop, assessments, quality, costs, transfer value, and outcomes. 
  • Achievement transparency through comprehensive learner records (CLRs), or digital and portable records of a persons verified achievements, including their demonstrated competencies, experiences, and credentials. 

With better systems for making competencies more transparent in job descriptions, credentials, and individual learner records, we could expect the market to respond by creating additional tools and applications that help the larger education and workforce ecosystems function more efficiently and effectively. Issues of equity and inclusion must be a focus as these tools are designed and operationalized.

The possibilities raised by transparency into career pathways, credentials , and individuals achievements are exciting, to be sure, but we are a long way from all education providers whether postsecondary institutions, proprietary providers, workforce training providers, or community-based training providers being able to participate in the ways that are envisioned.

Competency transparency will depend on postsecondary institutions being able to be full participants in a system that relies on competencies rather than just courses, credits, and degrees. The best way for postsecondary institutional leaders to prepare for these education and workforce changes is to improve their internal capacity to 1) articulate the specific competencies designed into their programs and credentials, 2) assess a students learning in order to validate their competencies, and 3) connect these improvements and others via a credential transparency strategy for supportive data, tools, and staffing.

These improvements will be larger than any single project and require a long-term commitment in order to be successful. The risk is not doing anything. In the future, program quality will be a key strategic asset that is more widely recognized by the public. Those programs that support competency-based practices with policies, processes, technology, and staffing will be well positioned, while those without such practices will struggle. Senior leadership has a pivotal role in setting a strategic direction toward transparency and building trust inside and outside of the institution. By taking these prudent preparatory actions, leaders can help bring about a more equitable future for America.


This blog is part 1 in a CAEL-Credential Engine series exploring competency transparency in our learning and labor market systems, the potential role that postsecondary institutions can play, and the work needed to get there. The full series is:

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